The tourists have gone. The hotel workers have gone. The bright red scooters have gone from the streets, instead lined up in regimented rows outside the shuttered rental companies.
But what is most perplexing in Covid-isolated Cook Islands is that the world-famous Raro dogs have gone. They used to roam Rarotonga’s beaches and lagoons, loiter hopefully outside the cafes, swim across to the motu, hitch rides on the front of paddle boards, befriend soft-touch tourists.
Now, you can sometimes stand at one end of Muri beach and look down the length of it, and not see another living being – whether with two legs, three legs or four.
Where do 4000 dogs suddenly disappear to? Well, it seems they’ve gone home.
BUSY AT THE VETS’ CLINIC
Onion places his front paws on the back of the tray of Georgina Savage’s small grey Chinese-made JAC lorry.
Savage, 72, enlists the aid of Te Are Manu veterinary clinic manager Debbie Topp and, together, they strain, grimace, and with a big shove, hoist Onion up onto the back of the truck. It’s undignified, but clearly Onion has done it before.
Savage had brought Onion in to see the vets to check out a patch of dry, sometimes weepy skin on his back. They vets merrily take guesses before weighing him in at 60kg – the second-biggest dog they have ever seen in Cook Islands. (First prize goes to a 62kg bull mastiff).
This Arorangi beachside clinic, reliant on donations and foreign volunteer vets to operate, is the only vet in the country – and it’s busier than it’s ever been.
Dog owners, who previously might have worked two paid jobs and several community roles, now find themselves spending more time at home in the Covid-19 shutdowns and slowdowns; their dogs, too, are returning home to be fed after years spent chatting up tourists on the beaches.
They’re spending more time together – and for the first time, says Topp, they’re bringing in their pets for veterinary check-ups.
So British volunteer vet Dr Katie Thompson, 31, dispenses an ointment and some dietary advice for Onion.
“I've had cats brought to the clinic in pillow cases, in the under-seat compartment on mopeds and even on people's shoulders,” laughs Thompson.
She is trapped by border closures and unable to return to her job in Australia, so is living off her savings. “I’ve seen a true island economy in action – sometimes we receive donations in cash and dog food, other times it's bananas and chocolate cake! It’s been a bit strange getting used to how small the island is. I thought I was from a small town but Raro is a whole other kind of small.”
When she’s finished checking over Onion, everyone helps him back onto the truck. Like so many other dogs on the island, he has a history. In a country with a sometimes transient human population, the dogs will go from one owner to another.
Rarotonga-born Savage moved back to the island eight years ago, and into her old family home up Takuvaine Valley. Onion turned up too; his previous owner had moved overseas so he adopted Savage.
In a country famous for its distinctive strain of “Stumpy” short-legged dogs, Onion is anything but. He’s big, slow-moving, probably with a bit of golden labrador in him (possibly a bit of elephant!) Onion looks like he’s seen the world go by, yet Thompson guesses he wouldn’t be much more than 8 years old.
Savage takes good care of him. She boils him up chicken or pork chops with veges every day, sometimes with a sachet of powdered cream of chicken soup thrown in for flavour, sometimes just soy sauce.
Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are in New Zealand. “It’s just about me now – me and Onion and two cats. Him and I love each other, he’s my baby.”
Most of the dogs on the islands aren’t big like Onion – and the most famous Raro dogs are those that Te Are Manu vet Ellen McBryde affectionately calls “the Stumpies”, with disproportionately short legs. There has been much conjecture about where this trait comes from.
In 2004 in the international science magazine Discover, US veterinarian Cynthia Mills told of her work collecting DNA samples on the island for the canine genome project. She estimated a good third of dogs had legs almost as short as a dachshund’s – though straight and lovely rather than crooked like those of most dwarf breeds.
“Short legs, it turns out, aren’t that rare,” Mills wrote. “The characteristic may even be a function of domestication. Animals don’t just become tame when they adapt to human society. They often become smaller, spotted, pug-nosed, floppy eared, oversexed, and small brained.”
She quoted 18th century explorers who described Polynesian dogs as being “very low on the legs”. And she added: “Sketches from that time show dogs that look very much like the dogs I treated. They were called poe dogs or poi dogs and were often meant for the dinner pot.”
But in 2018, Cook Islands News interviewed Donald McKegg, who had a more contemporary explanation. He recalled how his family returned to Rarotonga in the 1960s with a male standard dachshund. “We inherited the remnants of my grandfather's cat and dog family. One was a terrier cross bitch, which the police had missed during their cull. The dachshund and the bitch produced six pups; all male, five with dachshund legs.”
They kept one puppy and gave the others to friends around the island. The dogs were enthusiastic in sharing their DNA with Rarotonga's remaining unspayed females.
Then there’s the wonderful (but certainly apocryphal) local legend that one of the Queen's corgis got loose on her state visit in 1974, and got friendly with all the island's loyal local dogs.
Now, McBryde has a new theory. The 28-year-old vet, from Adelaide in Australia, has looked after animals around the Pacific. On her two tours of duty in Cook Islands, she has also made trips to the outer islands of Mangaia and Aitutaki.
She hypothesises that the “stumpy” appearance of Raro dogs is a result of chondrodysplasia, a genetic mutation that affects the cartilage, so the long bones in the legs don't grow as they should. “It would be interesting to know just how big the genetic pool is here on Rarotonga and whether this is genuinely resulting in selection pressure for such a genetic mutation!”
That’s a theory that intrigues Cynthia Mills, nearly 20 years after her groundbreaking DNA sampling on the island. Chondrodysplasia is a form of dwarfism, she says, which some breeders select for, to create breeds with dangerously crooked hips, “making veterinarians like me crazy, as most of them cause a lot of health problems”.
By contrast, the Raro dogs could be a healthier example of natural selection: “That’s one of the things I liked about the short-legged Raro dogs: their legs were short, but (mostly) straight.”
Contrary to some perceptions, Raro dogs aren’t all happy-go-lucky strays. They must be registered, and wear a collar. Households may own no more than two dogs, and are responsible for ensuring they don’t wander or cause a nuisance. There are few real strays and if they start causing a nuisance, police will occasionally announce a crackdown and get the rifle out of the office gun cabinet.
The vast majority of tourists who return home with a story of adopting a friendly stray have in fact been played for suckers; it is they who have been adopted, by a dog whose owner probably lives up the road from the resort and would be perfectly happy to feed the dog a balanced diet – if this Raro dog wasn’t so busy dining out on tourists’ leftovers.
This isn’t a bad thing: the vets reckon the combination of food, friendship and freedom makes Raro dogs some of the healthiest and best-adjusted dogs anywhere in the Pacific. Nothing like New Zealand’s yappy dogs with their fenced-in, repressed suburban neuroses.
But of course, there are exceptions. Hookworm and heartworm are common; there are regularly cases of paralytic poisoning from eating reef fish contaminated with the Ciguatera toxin. Yes, there is occasional abuse: Thompson stitched up a dog with a machete wound to her back this month. There is neglect, there is dumping – especially when people move overseas. And, though less common than in countries like Tonga, there are still a few locals who like a bit of dog steamed in their umu.
There is no evidence that abuse is any more widespread here than in other Pacific nations, like Australia and New Zealand. But when it happens, it can be confronting for a person.
In 2016, departing SPCA shelter caretaker Andrea Taylor raised $3000 on Givealittle to help her bring three abused dogs home with her to Nelson, New Zealand. “One thing I have learnt is that there are more dogs on Rarotonga than there are homes for them and the population keeps growing,” she wrote. “Many of the dogs in the shelter have come from either abusive homes where they have been starved, mistreated, beaten and abused or found wandering the streets and beaches with untreated medical conditions.”
At the same time, Sharon Routh from Auckland raised $5200 to “rescue” Gunner the Muri golden retriever, whom she feared would be reported to police, “picked up and killed – all for being too friendly and wanting to be with people.”
Then in 2018, Aucklanders Brenda and Andrew Tanner-McCann raised $7000, again on Givealittle, to rescue Buddy, the “lovable stray” from Vaimaanga. “The chance to live not to be culled,” Brenda pleaded in the New Zealand media.
Some of these dogs, like Buddy, had been injured and did need help. Did they need to be flown to New Zealand to be saved? Probably not. Was it money well-spent? Hey, it’s their money. (Theirs, and their hundreds of Givealittle donors).
Is there a systemic problem with the welfare of dogs and cats in Rarotonga? Now, that’s a good question. Certainly, there’s less provision to look after those that are sick, injured or neglected.
WAIFS AND STRAYS
For more than three years, since moving over from north Canterbury in New Zealand, Debbie Topp has been managing Te Are Manu clinic.
She has a whole lot of dogs she keeps an eye on. There’s Bear, a three-legged stray who lives on the beach between Waterline restaurant and the Edgewater resort. The Air New Zealand cabin crew who stay at the Edgewater always used to look out for him and contribute to the costs of his care – but that stopped when the planes stopped coming. Debbie makes sure he’s okay and gets treatments for fleas and worms and bumps and bruises and his manky coat.
Then there’s Zoe who hangs out at Raro Fried chicken. She too has just three legs, and an infected dewclaw. Trudie hangs out just across the dock at the famous Trader Jack’s restaurant. An old gentleman in Arorangi needs help with “an old three-leg” he owns; an elderly mama in Tupapa has an old dog who is like her family, as she has no one. The clinic helps them care for their dogs.
Fifteen kilometres away, around the other side of the island, the staff at Deli-Licious cafe look after the street dogs in Muri tourist resort, and the vet clinic helps out with food and treatment. Topp says: “It really goes on and on!”
Since the effective closure of the borders at the end of March, the tourists have all gone, and so too some of the longer-term workers and volunteers who helped run the Cook Islands SPCA and Te Are Manu. SPCA manager Deborah Ramage has left the country.
For a little while, the SPCA was reliant on just one volunteer: 39-year-old Swedish/Polish tourist Karolina Szelag. Pretty much the only criterion for getting the job, she laughs, was being able to drive the SPCA’s manual gear-shift van.
“I decided to stay because I’ve got new animal friends who need someone to take care of them, and we have pretty good working partners in the vets’ clinic,” explains Szelag, a teacher. “I’m lucky that when most of the world is in lock-down and we have to keep distance from each other, I’m busy with animals.”
But there are now more volunteers (both “stranded” tourists and locals), more personal donations, more local adoptions, and they are trying new things. “I take some of our dogs to Tereora College,” says Szelag. “One of the best argument is that there is no language barriers, the dogs will be like a therapy in this project.”
And fortunately, when the border was closing, Te Are Manu’s three volunteer vets – Ellen McBryde, Katie Thompson and German 27-year-old Anika Fleischer – all made the decision to hunker down for the long run.
That much is good.
Then, there is the debate about what the loss of tourists means for feeding and caring for the dogs.
Dunedin couple Coral Seath, 25, and Carlie Paterson, 24, have decided to extend what was meant to be a 10-day holiday, and instead are spending their Covid-19 travel lockdown on the island, volunteering for the SPCA. They worry the dogs will go hungry.
“We have noticed that as less tourists are around to feed the dogs they are starting to get a little hungrier and cheeky in their pursuit for a meal,” Seath says. “Some locals have been good at giving them a little extra but we are worried that the dogs will get hungrier as time goes on.”
However, McBryde argues fewer free feeds for the roaming dogs might be a good thing: “I bet some dogs have had some much-needed weight loss!”
The downside, everyone agrees, is that Te Are Manu and SPCA have lost much-needed donations from tourists, who in the past have given their time, money, and brought over medicines and other stock in their luggage.
“We are running out of some medicines, flea treatments and dog-related items such as toys and collars,” McBryde says. “This means we will have to purchase some items in, so our outgoing costs have certainly increased due to Covid-19.”
Sitting in the clinic’s waiting room, awaiting the arrival of the two SPCA volunteers with five abandoned kittens, Debbie Topp chips in: these medical supplies are “desperately needed”, she says.
She is worried whether the clinic will still be able to bring in volunteer vets from around the world, with Covid changing travel for ever. “Will we still be able to keep the clinic open? I worry about lots of things.”
Topp says the Raro dogs are very much loved, and a unique part of the Rarotongan culture – but they are reliant on volunteers and charity for their care.
“I feel it’s time the government and tourism stood up and helped the clinic provide the care these animals deserve,” she says.
'WE'RE JUST LUCKY'
With many of the overseas volunteers going home, the SPCA has found more local volunteers to help out.
SPCA board member Julie Tamaariki says: “The Raro dogs are a special breed, they are resilient and tough but enjoy human companionship that has been part of their lives with a volume of human interaction, we are hoping they will get that from our local community as much as they did with the tourists.”
Te Are Manu's volunteer vets live down the driveway from the clinic, in a house provided for them, with Sunny, the clinic dog. So they too experience the warmth and companionship of their own Raro dog.
Thompson says one of the best parts of her time in Rarotonga is swimming off the beach at the end of the garden with Sunny acting as lifeguard. “He gets very worried if you swim too far from shore and will paddle out to supervise!”
McBryde agrees: “Sometimes it can be hard to comprehend what’s happening in the world right now but every single day our clinic dog, Sunny, is so excited to go to work! He’s a daily lesson in how to appreciate the little things in life, and focus on what you do have rather than don’t have.
“The Raro dogs show us pure joy each and every day, and they are such a pleasure to be around. They are the best company for sunrise, sunset, swims in the lagoon, drinks on the beach, and everything in between. We’re just lucky to be able to call one our own!”
● Te Are Manu are extremely busy and ask that people make an appointment by ringing 27719.